Over half of magistrates courts across England and Wales have been closed in last nine years. According to court service statistics compiled for the House of Commons’ library, around 150 constituencies contained a magistrate court that closed with a dozen containing two court closures.
The magistrates courts, where almost all criminal proceedings begin, have been facing widespread closure for a number of years now as a part of the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) £1.2 billion digital modernisation programme; an initiative designed to reduce the need for physical attendance at some court hearings by introducing virtual hearings and other electronic and centralised forms of communication.
This has created large gaps in the landscape of courts through England and Wales and reports have indicated that hours are now being added onto the time it takes for individuals to access their ‘new’ local magistrates court. Despite clear concerns from practitioners and even Her Majesty’s Court and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) confirming that they were considering whether to pay for taxi fares to enable people attend alternative courts, further closures are planned this year.
The MoJ have have argued that the closures were warranted because of falling crime rates and the lack of some courts running at full capacity, however the digitalisation of the court system has proved problematic so far with a major technical glitch causing havoc for users across the country earlier last week.
‘Whilst accepting there was a clear case for some to close, many magistrates will be very worried about some of these closures and the impact on access to justice,’ commented Malcolm Richardson, national chairman of the Magistrates Association. ‘There will be inevitable additional pressure on the system and the paramount concern for magistrates is for accessible justice to be protected. We hope that the Ministry of Justice will work closely with magistrates to safeguard it.’
The MoJ argue that the closure of a court is not a decision taken lightly with consideration given as to whether users will have reasonable access to alternative courts. Though many are now faced with extended travel times spanning several hours and additional travel costs. Some users will not even be able to access their nearest court by public transport.
So far the court closures have generated approximately £233 million, a far cry from the £1.5billion needed.